The gavel has fallen, and two weeks of mostly polite but sometimes ferocious and often shameful wrangling, of sustained and passionate protest and a sometimes festival-like celebration of life (and the months and years of hard graft, detailed research and analysis and sacrificial dedication leading up to COP26) are over. The visitors have departed exhausted, the city has had its buildings and streets handed back, and life in Glasgow can go back to normal. Or can it?
The outcome of all of this effort and expectation is what is to be known as The Glasgow Climate Pact. There is general agreement that this is a weak deal, though how bad it is depends on where you view it from. While there has been some progress on deforestation and methane emissions, and at least a mention of fossil fuels, especially coal (watered down systematically in the final hours) in a COP agreement for the first time ever, even if all the promises and pledges made are carried out (and past evidence is not optimistic on this), they are not nearly enough as it stands to limit warming temperatures to 1.5C. The world is still on a pathway to 2.5C. And as we know, this will be quite literally a death sentence for millions already suffering the catastrophic impacts of climate change and for tens of thousands of endangered species of every kind, and will render large parts of the globe uninhabitable.
The issue of ‘loss and damage’ (whereby vulnerable and poor countries, which did less than anyone to cause the climate crisis, but who suffer the worst damage sought a commitment from rich nations for finance to repair this damage) did not make it into the final agreement. All that remains are pious exhortations to wealthy countries to increase climate finance to developing countries, and an agreement to discuss this further.
Mohammed Adow, of Power Shift Africa (and former Head of Global Policy and Advocacy on Climate Change for Christian Aid), summed up the reaction from the global south (or the majority world, as it can accurately be described) thus:
This summit has been a triumph of diplomacy over real substance. The outcome here reflects a COP held in the rich world and the outcome contains the priorities of the rich world. We are leaving empty handed [on loss and damage] but morally stronger and hopeful that we can sustain the momentum in the coming year to deliver meaningful support which will allow the vulnerable to deal with the irreversible impacts of climate change created by the polluting world who are failing to take responsibility.”
Two weeks of intense engagement with COP26, even from outside the Blue Zone, following on from a year of preparatory work and half a lifetime in the field of international development, have made me a passionate participant-observer here in Glasgow. It will take me a while to process what it all means. But among my immediate reactions, I remember that after COP15 meeting in Copenhagen in 2009, which was generally agreed to have been a political and environmental disaster, the impact on climate campaigning across the world was one of huge, if temporary, demoralisation. I do not think that will be the case this time.
‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ We are now, much more than we were in 2009, in a time of reckoning for the costs and consequences of empire, and for the west’s role in colonialism and neocolonialism, including its impacts on the global commons. In the Black Lives Matter’ and the ‘Me Too’ movements, in many countries across the world, in the plight of the planet itself, we are being held to account, not for but by our sins! Those of us living in rich western countries are required to recognise and name our privilege, which for many of us is also white privilege and class privilege, which has pushed the world to its planetary limits.
How do we change a prevailing economic mindset which is largely based on resource extraction, carried out by the rich from the lands, cultures and bodies of the poor on grossly unequal terms, and ultimately reinforced by political and military power, which externalises its costs and finds many and varied means of avoiding and evading fair, redistributive taxation? And which now expects its victims to clean up our messes, and to pay for doing so.
It seemed to me that the best bits of COP26 were the horizontal ones. These are the groups, organisations and individuals who work multilaterally, across national borders and in the interests of the many. These, whether in the Green Zone, the Climate Fringe, the People’s Summit or Govan Free State, in the Climate Strike and the People’s March, and in which I would include the UN Side Events, were where thousands of committed people- scientists, academics, researchers, environmentalists, NGOs, activists, artists, people with hard-won expertise in many fields-came together with people with lived experience of global warming, conflict, forced migration, poverty, marginalisation, to listen, to learn, to share stories and challenges and solutions.
My observation is that these were overwhelmingly people of goodwill, whose primary and overriding purpose was to find, implement and demonstrate what it means to think globally and act locally as we inch towards carbon reduction and climate justice. Whether in the law, transport and shipping, housing and urban planning, food sovereignty, the protection of bio-diversity, and a whole range of other issues, the opportunity to make these practical and campaigning connections was hugely valuable, valued and encouraging.
But not enough! Ultimately, the Conference of Parties is a conference of nation states, where power and decision-making is vertical. The extent to which national parliaments are able to make policy in the interests of the poor, even if they show any interest in doing so, even if it is in the long-term interest of their whole population (which is surely the case with climate change and the carrying capacity of the planet) is hugely compromised by all the punitive dynamics and mechanisms of globalised neo-liberalism. And the fossil fuel industries, which are transnational, but who wield power that is unilateral and vertical, and who had the greatest degree of access, voice and political influence at COP26, sit at the apex of these punitive dynamics and mechanisms, and operate in their own interests, which run into trillions of dollars.
In the UK, we live in a country in which the maximum spending estimate for achieving our climate change targets is around the same level as what the government considers to be the bare minimum requirement for military spending; that the government fails to devote even half this sum to addressing the climate crisis represents a gross distortion of priorities, reflecting in turn a fundamentally flawed understanding of security. The world’s armies, which are major carbon emitters, are not included in the Paris Agreement, and many of them don’t report, or under-report their emissions. And they are scaling up capabilities, spending more on erecting a ‘carbon wall’ against the climate and conflict refugees who are seen as a security threat, than they are on climate finance for mitigation and adaptation.
The forces ranged against achieving a just outcome among 197 countries are immense, and have been in evidence, however subtly or ‘green-washed’ over the last fortnight. Political power has enormous potential for transformational change, but only by the mobilisation of women and men, and particularly the young, most affected by climate change, poverty, inequality, in protest, resistance and challenge. Is this possible? Perhaps. For sure, in the face of a market economy which bombards us every day with the message that value is always extrinsic, and that nothing has value in and for itself, only for what it can be sold for, it will require of us in wealthy countries much greater attention to alternative spiritualities for resistance, insistence and persistence, spiritualities for justice.
My last blog, and thanks to my house guests, who brought the complexities of the Blue Zone back to me. And to Neil Paynter and Karen Turner for posting these, even when they arrived at inconvenient times, and to William Gibson, Alison Swinfen and David Coleman for sharing their photos with me. In signing off, I am once again moved to share Tom Leonard’s great poem, written for Mordechai Vanunu, which confronts me every day, and more so after COP26.
Being a Human Being
not to be complicit
not to accept everyone else is silent it must be alright
not to keep one’s mouth shut to hold onto one’s job
not to accept public language as cover and decoy
not to put friends and family before the rest of the world
not to say I am wrong when you know the government is wrong
not to be just a bought behaviour pattern
to accept the moment and fact of choice
I am a human being
and I exist
a human being
and a citizen of the world
responsible to that world
-and responsible for that world
Kathy Galloway is a writer, activist and practical theologian. She has worked for the Iona Community, Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty. She lives in Glasgow, Scotland.
Photo © William Gibson